Officials hope Pajaro flood might finally cut through decades of red tape over the levee
Monterey County administrators hope the public outcry from the latest Pajaro levee failure will spur robust federal action.
With much of Pajaro still under water after a levee upstream failed over the weekend, local officials are hoping the disaster might finally get the flood protection system rebuilt–after decades of trying.
“The way forward is to build the project that we've always been trying to build, and to expedite it even more creatively and more quickly than we were envisioning even a month ago.” said Mark Strudley, executive director of the Pajaro Regional Flood Management Agency, which is run jointly by Santa Cruz and Monterey Counties.
The levee has failed repeatedly in the 74 years since it was built. But improving flood protection for a poor, rural community has always taken a backseat under federal formulas tied to property values.
Late last year, the agency finally secured state and federal funding for a $400 million reconstruction project, upgrading levees on both sides of the Pajaro River to 100-year flood protection. But the project was not supposed to begin until 2025. Now, with national attention focused on Pajaro’s plight, officials are appealing to the state and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to accelerate the timeline.
“This event is really kind of galvanizing the need to wipe aside as many administrative barriers to implementing this project as we possibly can,” Strudley said.
Meetings with state and federal officials are set for this week.
“We will be requesting to the Army Corps that instead of simply replacing what was there before, that we propose to replace elements of the proposed project,” he said. “Why rebuild a failing levee that has now been burst open with something that was not sufficient at delivering flood risk reduction?”
Strudley said some parts of the project, like acquiring land and moving utilities, probably cannot move any faster. But others, such as environmental reviews, can.
“This project is inherently a good project for the environment. This is a project that's going to set levees back; make the river wider. It's going to introduce a lot more opportunity for habitat, a lot more opportunity for groundwater recharge,” he said. “Environmental review processes and permitting is kind of a footnote to this project. In my mind, that's one of these administrative barriers that we can reduce.”
Reconstructing the levees will still take years, Strudley said, which means crews will still need to monitor the structures and make emergency repairs with every storm. That work led to some harrowing moments Friday night, when a crew on the levee saw river water beginning to seep through the levee, and beat a hasty retreat.
“As soon as they pulled back, from my understanding, that was it. It just gushed right open,” he said.
Two people died during the last major levee failure in 1995. Strudley said the flood of 2023 is disturbingly similar.
“The main difference here is that we don't have any life lost this time,” Strudley said. “That is the only silver lining to what's going on right now.”